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16 September 2010

Leaks on cuts will be punished

Ministers could be hit with further budget cuts if they release early details of their department's

By Caroline Crampton

Ministers could be punished for leaking early details of spending cuts with last-minute changes to their budgets, the Financial Times has reported.

With the party conference season about to get underway in earnest, Cameron clearly doesn’t want speculation about cuts to distract from the Tories’ first conference in government for 13 years, and is planning to use the threat of imposed spending cuts to keep his ministers on message during this period. Control will even extend to the conference itself, the FT reports:

“One senior government official said the Treasury would be vetting all ministerial conference speeches to avoid any hint of new spending commitments.”

Provisional deals are already in place for some departments ahead of the announcement of the comprehensive spending review on October 20, but David Cameron is said to be anxious to reveal the spending cuts as a complete package, rather than have different elements leak out at different times, dominating the news cycle and distorting the image he wants to present.

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The news that the information will be quite so tightly controlled seems to confirm that Cameron is more than a little concerned about the potential ramifications if the cuts are presented the “wrong” way. Ahead of the AV referendum and the local elections next year, the spending review will be the first major test for the unity of the coalition. David Cameron and George Osborne need to prove to the electorate that their cuts are necessary for recovery, not merely ideological, while Nick Clegg has to keep the left of his party convinced that their interests are served by lending their support. And as my colleague George Eaton pointed out yesterday, opposition to the cuts is gathering momentum on several fronts already, and any leaks of the “outline settlements” currently being negotiated would only fuel this movement further.

Leaking details of departmental proposals to the press used to be a tried and tested way for ministers to try and circumvent the Treasury in securing funding (as immortalised in the first ever episode of The Thick of It). But the FT’s “senior government official” warns that this trick won’t work this time because Cameron and Osborne are “completely united” on this. So, if any leaks are made over the next few weeks, we’ll know it has nothing to do with trying to preserve departmental budgets, and everything to do with personal rebellion against the coalition’s leaders.